With its white picket fence, Labour red front door and brown plaque commemorating his late wife Caroline, Tony Benn’s house in Notting Hill is something of a local landmark. He has lived here since 1952, mostly downstairs in the basement. There is a small printed note on the front door directing visitors down there. When I find him, the door is open. I ask about the plaque. ‘I put it up myself. Didn’t ask permission. Am too old to ask for permission. Takes too long, asking for permission.’
Too old is 84, though, as I am to discover, everything about Tony Benn, from his demeanour to his idealism, is strangely youthful. Harold Wilson once quipped that Benn ‘immatures with age’, but I think it is more that he is a Benjamin Button, living his political life in reverse.
His grandfather was a Liberal MP, so was his father, before becoming a Labour one. And when Benn first became a Labour MP in 1950, he was quite moderate. By the time he retired in 2001, ‘to devote more time to politics’, he was one of the most radical politicians in his party, and a constant thorn in the side of the Establishment, one remembered for trying to have the Queen’s head removed from stamps. Nowadays, his campaigning tends to be about single issues: he is passionately opposed to nuclear weapons, for example, as well as the European Union and ID cards. He is also the president of the Stop the War Coalition.
But we were talking about his wife, who died in 2000. ‘She was an extraordinary woman,’ he continues in his wuffly voice. ‘An educationalist and writer. I was so shy when I first met her at Oxford. Didn’t propose for nine days. Afterwards I bought the bench I proposed on. Had it in the garden here for years, then when she died, I moved it to our place in Essex, where she is buried. There’s a space at the bottom for my name.’
Benn taps down the tobacco in one of two pipes he alternates between as he talks. He tries lighting it, but without much success, and draws on it regardless. The clicking of the lighters, he has several lying around, seems to be a tic of his, something for him to do with his hands.
When not engaged in this way they flutter like trapped birds. And when he is making a point, which is all the time, his wrists rotate faster. Only when I ask if he ever catches himself talking to his wife when he sits on that bench now does a stillness descend upon him. He stares out of the window. Thinks. ‘Well, you know, you continue communication. Death doesn’t divide you,’ he says.
The basement is dimly lit. In-trays and out-trays teeter with papers and letters. ‘My filing system is messy but orderly,’ Benn says with a shrug. The shelves are laden with political biographies and lever arch files and on his desk there are a number of mugs and pots brimming with pens and pencils.
There are also several cans of butane gas about the place, making it look like a bomb factory. They are for the ubiquitous lighters. He still hasn’t eaten meat since becoming a vegetarian in 1970, still hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in his life and still drinks about a pint of tea an hour. Teetotal indeed.
‘My whole life is in this room really. I come down at seven and go to bed at midnight. I don’t have a secretary so there are thousands of emails and letters to deal with. Very satisfying. Really enjoying life,’ he says. Benn’s idea of a dream day is speaking to all four of his children on the phone, which he usually does, and having his 10 grandchildren popping in and out. ‘My day rotates around my family. I am very lucky. Hilary [his son, the environment secretary] rings twice a week. We’ve never fallen out over politics. He said when he was elected that he was a Benn, not a Bennite. And so am I.’
Benn sometimes does his contributions to the Radio 4 Today programme from this basement, too, but more often he goes over to the studio in White City. While we are talking, his phone rings regularly, and one of the calls is from the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2. They want him on at lunchtime to talk about the moon landings. Often, he says, the calls these days are requests from obituary editors wanting a quote about people he has known.
For he has known everyone, from Ramsay MacDonald and Oswald Mosley to Ghandi and Mandela. His circle of friends has included Enoch Powell on one end of the political spectrum and Arthur Scargill on the other. He was, furthermore, the last Westerner to interview Saddam Hussein, a few weeks before the war. ‘I wanted to ask him to his face whether he had WMDs. He told me he didn’t. Turned out he was telling the truth.’
Benn’s compulsive diary keeping, he reckons, is to do with a moral responsibility he feels to give an account of his life. ‘I will present the Almighty with 18 million words and say, what do you make of it? I can’t go to bed if I haven’t done my diary. I always record them just as I’ve always recorded all my interviews and speeches,’ he says.
‘Experience is the only real teacher and if you keep a diary you get three bites at educating yourself – when it happens, when you write it down, and when you reread it and realise you were wrong. Making mistakes is part of life. The only things I would feel ashamed of would be if I had said things I hadn’t believed in order to get on. Some politicians do do that.’
Example? ‘Neil Kinnock. When he started in 1970 he wrote to me saying he believed everything I believed. Politicians are divided into signposts and weathercocks. Neil Kinnock gave up everything he believed in to get power and ended up with no one believing him about anything. That makes him a weathercock. Margaret Thatcher was a signpost. The trouble was, I thought her sign pointed in the wrong direction. She was not affected by spin-doctors, she said what she meant and people knew what they were voting for. I see myself as being more of a signpost, like her,’ he says.
Benn talks in aphorisms like these, as well as self-detracting anecdotes, well polished from his popular stage show: An Evening with Tony Benn. Given all his years of experience (as well as being an MP for 51 years he was also a cabinet minister, first in the Sixties, then again in the Seventies), I ask whether the political world still has the capacity to surprise him. What does he make of the current low standing of MPs following the expenses scandal?
‘I think you should always be suspicious of people who want power. I don’t mean cynical, but someone who has power is someone you have to watch carefully,’ he says. ‘When my father was elected there was no pay for MPs at all. He was a journalist who went to the House in the afternoon. The interesting thing for me about the expenses scandal is that it shows the importance of having a Freedom of Information Act. If that had been around at the time, no one would have been claiming expenses. The government want to know everything about us, but it doesn’t want us to know about them.’
Benn doesn’t miss the House of Commons, but he does miss his weekly surgeries. ‘Being a politician is the only job where you have one employee and 65,000 employers. I do miss that,’ he says.
Even Benn’s enemies would have to admit he has beautiful manners. He is always courteous, however heated the debate. ‘Well, I don’t believe you should attack people personally,’ he says. ‘My father taught me that. Democracy is about competing opinion, but you don’t have to be nasty about it. The personality side of things switches me off completely. I stopped reading the papers when they were full of all these personal attacks on Gordon Brown. What matters is what is done, not who does it.’
He was a victim of the personalisation of politics himself. The Sun constantly vilified him in the Eighties, running ‘Benn on the couch’ features that questioned his sanity. ‘It was very unpleasant. My black sacks of rubbish were collected every day in a Rover car. Now I know the Kensington Borough Council is Conservative and very efficient, but I don’t think they were that efficient,’ he says. ‘That car was being driven by The Sun presumably, or MI5. My son invented a rubbish bell so that when the sacks were lifted a bell rang and we could see who was taking it away.’
He also became convinced that MI5, or someone, was bugging his phone. Did he begin to question his own sanity? ‘No, never. But they always do this. If you argue for progressive change you are ignored at first, then you are dismissed as mad, then dangerous, then there is a pause and you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim that it was their idea. Watching those stages is a good way of analysing how far you have got with your cause.’
And the smears? ‘There is always some of that. They said I had a bank account in the Bahamas and I thought: Really? I had better write to the bank and ask for the money back then. My family suffered. Had to train the children how to deal with being photographed on their way to school. The photographers would eff and blind at the children in the hope that they would react. A horrible experience,’ he says.
In retirement, Benn seems to have acquired something that always eluded him as a working politician: likeability. He is still not clubbable exactly, but he does suit the role of sage. And the popularity of his theatre talks is a testament to the broad affection in which he is now held, and not only by those on the left. What is perhaps most extraordinary is his popularity among the young. In 2002, he captivated audiences at Glastonbury with his political talks.
To what does he attribute this? ‘I would like to be remembered as someone who encouraged people, that is all. When I talk to young people I say: “I owe you an apology because my generation made such a muck of the world, killing 100 million people in two world wars. Your generation has to get it right”.’
He sucks on his pipe. ‘I think Ali G did me a huge amount of good with the young. He came to this house and completely took me in and I argued with him when he said “bitches only get pregnant in order to get benefit” and “people only go on strike to chill out”. And I said: “Don’t be ridiculous”.You see, a lot of the people he interviewed were frightened of him.’
But as Benn was so confident that he was neither racist nor sexist, did that mean he was able to stand up to Ali G? ‘Yes and when I was told it was a hoax, I was furious. But then when I saw it and saw what he had done with the other interviews, I found it hilarious. He’s my main man!’
He is chuckling now. Before things become too cosy, I turn to a subject about which Benn is known to be prickly. There is an immoral equivalence between fascism and communism, I argue, because of the genocide committed in the name of both. Yet while the BNP is rightly vilified for its association with fascism, Socialist parties are not vilified for their association with communism. Why is that, does he suppose?
He stares at me indignantly. ‘Socialism? Socialism is a democratic idea. The most socialist thing we ever did was the most popular thing we ever did, the NHS.’ But isn’t socialism just a polite version of communism? ‘Oh that’s just the media. The two attempts at socialism in my lifetime have failed because the communists weren’t democratic, and the social democrats adopted capitalism. Margaret Thatcher said Tony Blair and New Labour was her greatest achievement, and she was right,’ he says.
Benn quotes Mein Kampf, a passage in which Hitler writes that democracy leads to Marxism. Yes, I say, but doesn’t Marxism always lead to dictatorship? ‘Good heavens no. Marx was a philosopher. Think of the things that have been done in the name of Christ. The Pope stole Christianity from Jesus and Stalin stole Marxism from Marx. All Marx said was the world is divided between the 95 per cent who create the wealth and the five per cent who own it. That was an explanation, like Darwin.’
Last autumn, when the banks were part nationalised, did that seem like a Marxist moment to him? ‘Not at all. A classic case of the state funding capitalism. If it were Marxism you wouldn’t have this continuation of the bonus culture. The economic crisis we have now is a product of Thatcherism and Blairism applied to the economy. No one has said the trade unions are responsible for the credit crisis.’
Does he now accept that the unions abused their power though? ‘Well they used to be described as the barons of the TUC, but barons don’t get elected. Emperor Jack was elected, unlike Rupert Murdoch. I think we do live in a one-party state in that all three parties believe socialism has failed and capitalism has somehow got to be made to work, and it hasn’t worked.’
His 19-year-old granddaughter Emily may be about to become the fifth generation of the Benn family to enter politics, having been selected for the seat of Worthing and Shoreham. ‘I went to speak for her the other day. Very bright girl. The interest in politics runs in the family. Both my grandfathers were MPs, as was my dad and my son,’ he says.
He had tears in his eyes when he spoke for her. Has he become more emotional with age? ‘Oh yes, I burst into tears at the drop of a hat. When I introduced my son in parliament, my family were in the gallery and they said: “It’s The Railway Children all over again.” I always cry in that,’ Benn says.
‘There is nothing wrong in crying, and laughing. The tight-lipped Englishman is a totally artificial construct. I think bottling up emotions is so unnatural. Why are we given strong emotions if they are not to be expressed? Hating people damages you and doesn’t damage the people you hate, and if you hate someone it makes you unhappy and doesn’t affect them.’
He may not hate people, but are there things he hates? ‘I hate war. War is murder, rape, torture and plunder. Churchill was right, jaw jaw is always preferable. But I’m not a pacifist. I believe in the right of self-defence. I joined the RAF in the war but didn’t get my wings until the end so never had to kill anyone.’
His older brother Michael died in the war, while serving with the RAF. ‘I think of him every day.’ He shakes his head. ‘Every day. I got the telegram at the beginning of an RAF training class about weather and I had to sit there for an hour and then I went outside and wept. I remember him writing to me and saying he had shot down a German plane and he was thinking of the German’s family. He wanted to be a Christian minister.
‘You can never fill the gap that’s left, but you can decorate the gap with the flowers of memory. Everyone dies. At funerals I think: here we all are grieving this person but in a hundred years’ time everyone in this church will be dead. All that is left is memory and what you remember is the things people did in life. You remember the people who helped you lead a better life, the great artists, thinkers, leaders.’
He stares at a pigeon eating grain in his back garden. There are 12 of them who come every morning. ‘I go outside and say: “Birdies”, then throw down some seeds. I also leave some nuts out for a squirrel who comes. Then a cat comes round and scratches at the window. It is a way of having pets without the responsibility.’
I ask whether he thinks Enoch Powell was right when he said all political careers end in failure. ‘Not in my case because I was a failure much earlier on. I was attacked all the time. Everything I did was denounced. In old age people are much kinder. Also I don’t want anything anymore. I don’t want your vote, and that is a great strength,’ he says. ‘You become a Buddhist by default because you rid yourself of desire. If I had known what fun it was to be 84 I would have done it years ago.’
Perhaps his career hasn’t ended in failure, but in a worse fate – he has been sentimentalised by the public. ‘That is the worst corruption, to become regarded as a kindly, harmless old gentlemen. Well, I am kindly and I am old, but I am not harmless.’ He chuckles. ‘I got a death threat last year. Hadn’t had one for years. I was so chuffed.’